The siren howled its way into the air and echoed across the dying pastures.
Joshua scrambled to his feet. The animal he had been holding coughed up its tablet and shambled away, bleating. Joshua was already halfway to the gate, whistling for his dogs as he broke into a run.
When he reached the barn, two fields away, he unhooked a faded duffel bag from behind the door and shut the dogs inside. They whined and scrabbled at the corrugated iron, even as the farm gate clanged shut behind their master.
The bag rattled against Joshua’s hip as he jogged down the track to the village below. After a few hundred yards, the siren died abruptly. Joshua kept going.
Half a dozen other men were already congregated around the stone column, topped by an eagle, which marked the centre of the hamlet. Several were wearing faded fatigues, and the others were pulling similar uniforms out of duffel bags of their own. Rifles were stacked around the column, barrels resting against the smooth stone.
Panting, Joshua laid his own bag in the dust at the foot of the column and tugged at the zip. It fell open, and metal gleamed in the afternoon sun. Wordlessly, the others formed a line, and Joshua handed each man a pair of magazines. The market square echoed as, one by one, the rifle bolts shot home. One of the men, older, balding, turned to Joshua.
‘Where the hell is young David?’ he growled. ‘It can’t take him this long to get down here from Ma Lambright’s place. If he’s been chasing that Fisher lass again, I’ll tan his hide for him.’
‘Easy, Nathan,’ replied Joshua, struggling into his own uniform. ‘His heart’s in the right place.’
Nathan snorted. ‘It’s not his heart I’m worried about.’ Even as he spoke, footsteps sounded on the cobbles of the square. A young man arrived at a run. He already wore fatigues, although his boots were unlaced, his jacket gaped open, and there was straw in his hair. Nathan met Joshua’s eye and smirked. ‘In your own time, Dai.’
‘Right,’ Joshua announced to the group at large, ‘form up lads, and we’ll see what’s happening.’
The men shuffled into line, David still fumbling with the strap of his helmet. Joshua ran an eye down the line of familiar faces as he dug in his pack for a small civilian radio. He cranked the handle on the back a few times and switched it on. Dance music erupted from the tinny speaker.
Nathan spat into the dirt. ‘Nothing but bloody music. It’s been weeks now. When are they going to tell us what’s going on?’
Joshua shrugged. ‘You know the drill, gents. Usual stations please. Come on, Dai.’
The young man trotted after him as Joshua strode down what passed for the main road of the village, heading for its southernmost edge. He caught sight of an anxious face at a window. Behind them, a shutter banged.
It was not long before the houses petered out. Joshua threw his bag onto the boundary stone that marked the edge of the settlement. He made himself as comfortable as he could on top of it, his rifle covering the road that wound its way up the side of the valley. David knelt at his side.
‘What’s happening, Joshua?’ he asked. ‘The alarm sounds every other day, we stand to, we stand down. Yet we hear nothing.’
Joshua tried a half smile. ‘Maybe it’s just to make sure we’re on our toes.’
‘Why?’ David looked sceptical. ‘Where’s the sense in that?’
‘Ours not to reason why,’ the older man replied, with a hint of irony. ‘The Emperor protects.’
‘The Emperor protects,’ muttered David automatically. He shifted onto his other knee, letting go of his rifle. The barrel trailed in the dirt.
‘Careful Dai,’ Joshua admonished. ‘Keep your weapon clear. You’d be shot for that, if there was a ‘quistor here.’ He said it with a smile, but the youngster’s expression was sour as he brushed ineffectually with a sleeve at the mud caked on the flash-suppressor. Joshua winced. ‘Watch your hands there lad. It’s loaded, mind.’
David ignored him. ‘I’m not sure the Inquisition know this damned planet exists,’ he said bitterly, ‘let alone the great metropolis of Salisdar.’ He gestured at the handful of stone houses behind them. ‘I wonder which bureaucrat came up with the idea…’ His grumbling was cut off abruptly by a rising wail from the village.’
Joshua rose. ‘At least they didn’t keep us waiting long for the all-clear,’ he said.
‘Small mercies,’ David replied. He too stood, and the pair of them traipsed back to the village.
The men gathered once more beneath the eagle. With a rattle they unloaded the rifles and stacked the magazines back in Joshua’s duffle bag. He briefly inspected each weapon, making sure they were empty, and dismissed the men back to their homes.
The dogs began barking as soon as he reached the gate. He let them out of the barn, and they gambolled around him as he stripped off his fatigues, stuffed them back into his bag, and hung it back in its place. He splashed his hands and face in water from the cast-iron pump beside the door.
A fug of warmth and cooking smells assailed his senses as he opened the door. Standing at the cast-iron range, stirring a pot of stew, was Joshua’s wife, Miriam. She smiled at him as he pulled off his boots and settled himself at the pine table.
‘There’s tea in the pot,’ she said, indicating the bulging tea-cosy in front of Joshua. As he gratefully filled a mug, she added: ‘We heard the siren from here. What happened?’
‘False alarm. Again,’ Joshua replied shortly. ‘I’m not sure what they’re playing at, but it’s hardly our place to argue. I just wish they’d tell us what’s going on.’
‘You and me both,’ said Miriam. ‘How’s the flock?’
Joshua grimaced. ‘Not good. We lost two more overnight. I wonder…’
Before he could finish, a whirlwind of motion burst in from the door, circumnavigated the table, and sprawled on Joshua’s lap. His son, Saul, face upside down, head dangling, grinned up at him. Joshua reluctantly placed his untasted tea out of reach of flailing limbs.
‘Hallo Dad,’ Saul began. ‘We heard the siren. What happened? Were you fighting xenos in the village?’
‘Not quite,’ His father admitted. ‘It was all very boring, really. Nothing happened.’
Saul looked disappointed. ‘If nothing happens, why do they keep sounding the alarm? Is it something to do with the New Moon?’
His father glanced through the window at the sky beyond. Although the sunlight had not yet faded enough for the pale disc to be seen, he shivered. The shape had appeared without warning a month or so before. No mention of it had been made on the radio news, and a week afterwards the broadcasts themselves had stopped completely, replaced by uninterrupted music, played on a loop. Then the sirens had begun to wail.
Joshua shook himself, and looked again at his son. ‘Not as far as we’ve been told, son.’
Miriam sniffed. ‘The powers that be like to keep us in the dark, it seems.’
Saul sat up in his father’s lap. ‘You mustn’t criticise their decision,’ he said, seriously. ‘They do the Emperor’s Will. They tell us all we need to know. The Emperor Protects.’
Miriam and Joshua exchanged a look. ‘The Emperor protects,’ she echoed, uncertainly. ‘Now, dinner is ready. Are your hands clean?’ Joshua held his out for inspection. Saul followed suit.
Miriam ladled stew into bowls and ferried them one by one to the table.
‘Just the three of us tonight,’ she said. ‘Esther has a bellyache.’
Saul laid his spoon deliberately to one side, and held his hands over the bowl, thumbs linked together, palms and fingers spread like wings. He shut his eyes.
‘May we be forever grateful for the bounty the Emperor provides, in his beneficence,’ he said, pronouncing the longer words with deliberate care.
His father nodded. ‘Aye, and for the kindness of those who prepared it.’
Miriam winked at him. ‘And for the sweat of those who farmed it.’
Joshua laughed. ‘You didn’t put that in the stew, I hope?’
‘Father!’ Saul looked scandalised, but Joshua ignored him. The rich smell of mutton had made him realise just how hungry he was. Miriam passed him a slice of stale bread, and he dropped it in the bowl to soften it.
Before he could take a bite, the wail of the siren sounded once again. Joshua groaned and pushed back his chair, the legs scraping over the flagstones. Miriam looked at him.
‘Finish your dinner at least,’ she said plaintively.
‘I daren’t,’ her husband replied. ‘It’s never gone off twice in a day before. Besides, I’m not humping that bag down to the village on a full stomach. Keep it warm for me, I doubt I’ll be gone long. Don’t get up. ’He kissed her forehead and reached across the table to ruffle his son’s hair.
As he knelt outside the door, lacing his boots, he gave a whistle. One of the dogs trotted dutifully around the side of the barn and sat down in front of him. The other was nowhere to be seen.
‘Leman!’ he called, and whistled again, but the dog did not appear. Cursing, he dragged the other animal to the barn, and with a final glance around, locked it in. Shouldering the duffel bag, he set off once again for the village.
The men gathered around the stone eagle looked tired and disgruntled. Joshua guessed that most of them had also been interrupted mid-meal. He quickly pulled on his uniform and buckled his helmet. He let the others help themselves to ammunition.
‘Alright lads,’ he called out as the last of the bolts shot home. ‘Stations.’
This time, Joshua let young David perch himself on the boundary stone. The two of them gazed out onto the road winding its way through the pines. The shadows lengthened. One moon rose, then another. As the sunlight died away a third, paler disc faded into view.
Joshua kept anticipating the rising tone of the all-clear. Instead, the silence was periodically broken by thrushes and robins, and the occasional rustle from the treeline. A particularly bright meteorite caught his eye.
‘Make a wish, Dai,’ he said.
‘I wish they’d bloody tell us what was going on,’ David replied, irritably.
They lapsed once more into silence. At length, Joshua’s ears picked out a low roar. It surged and faded, but grew louder over time. David tensed. Joshua heard the click as the boy released the safety catch on his rifle. A low, dark shape lumbered into view between the trees.
‘Joshua,’ David hissed. ‘What is it? Should I fire?’
Joshua laid a hand on his arm. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘I think it’s one of ours.’
Treads scattering the loose stones of the path, the tank rumbled past them and towards the centre of the village. David gaped at it, open-mouthed.
‘Come on,’ instructed Joshua. ‘Let’s see what’s going on.’
Even as they ran, the tank outstripped the two men as it barrelled along the dirt road. Behind it, residents flung open their barred shutters and watched the vehicle disappearing in a haze of dust and fumes. Joshua and David arrived in the square at the same time as the other men, attracted by the noise. The tank had pulled up on the other side of the marketplace. A hatch swung open, and a figure dropped lightly onto the cobbles. The tank started up and pulled away. At the tight corner between the square and the eastward road, the driver misjudged the turn and clipped one of the houses. The machine gouged out a chunk of the wall, causing a flurry of tiles to slide from the roof and smash on the cobblestones. But the crew seemed not to not notice or care: the vehicle accelerated away in a cloud of exhaust.
The newcomer’s face was hidden by a mask and visor, with lenses that glinted green in the moonslight. The weapon he carried was dull black. Its sleek lines made the men’s rifles look like crude toys.
‘Is… is he an Astartes?’ whispered the awestruck David. Nathan chuckled.
‘Not quite, lad. That there’s a guardsman. Human like you and me. But I’ll warrant he’s seen more of war than half the planet put together.’
The solider approached the foot of the eagle. Joshua suddenly remembered himself.
‘Form up,’ he cried. ‘Quickly now!’ The men shuffled hastily into line. Joshua saluted the advancing figure. ‘Section Leader Troyer, Salisdar Yeomanry, reporting sir.’
The guardsman stopped. Wearily, he unclipped his respirator, letting it flop down to one side. The face that it revealed was grey with fatigue, pitted with pockmarks and scars from some long-healed disease. It took Joshua a moment to realise quite how young he was.
‘Don’t call me sir,’ he growled. ‘And you don’t salute me either. That’s for officers and Astartes. I work for a living.’ He glanced around the group. ‘Call your pickets in. There’s no immediate threat, and I want to talk to all of you.’
Joshua hastily counted the men in front of him. ‘We’re all here,’ he said.
The guardsman’s eyes widened. ‘Only eight?’ he said incredulously. ‘I was promised…’ he trailed off mid-sentence and shook his head. ‘Never mind,’ he went on. ‘I’m acting-corporal Svejk, from what’s left of 2nd brigade, Elysian Expeditionary Force. Corporal, to you. Where’s all your kit?’ His eyes, constantly moving, never quite met Joshua’s own.
Joshua exchanged a glance with Nathan. ‘This is all we were issued,’ he said. Svejk raised an eyebrow. ‘Corporal,’ Joshua added.
Svejk pursed his lips. ‘Let me see,’ he said, holding out a hand for Joshua’s rifle. Joshua handed it over, and the corporal turned it over as if he’d never seen the like before.
‘Emperor’s teeth,’ he said. ‘This isn’t a weapon, it’s an antique. Does it work?’
Joshua nodded. ‘We get ten rounds a month training allowance. Only the supplies haven’t come through for a month or two…’
‘Bloody hellfire,’ interrupted Svejk. ‘Don’t tell me you used all your ammunition on target practice?’
Joshua shook his head hurriedly. ‘No, no. Orders say we keep a minimum of 60 rounds a man.’
‘Thank the Throne for small mercies,’ Svejk replied. ‘Even if they’re small indeed.’ He tossed Joshua back his rifle. ‘Right, grab what gear you have. We’re moving out in two minutes.’
‘Where to, corporal? Can you tell us what’s going on?’ Nathan called out from the ranks.
Svejk rounded on him. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Let’s get one thing straight. I know you’re farmers, not soldiers. So I’ll make an allowance for that, once and once only. If I give an order, you don’t ask questions. You don’t whinge. You obey. I’ll explain when I see fit. Understood?’
The men nodded. ‘OK then,’ Svejk went on. ‘Our orders are to proceed to and secure a flat rock outcrop on the westward side of the valley. I could give you the grid, but that’s not much use without a copy of the map. Once we’ve achieved our objective, there will be time for explanations. Bigmouth here can take point. Troyer, come with me.’ The men stared at him, uncomprehending. ‘Come on! MOVE!’
Nathan unslung the rifle from his shoulder and turned towards the west. The others followed, hugging alternate sides of the road leading out of the village. Joshua stayed close to Svejk, who had insinuated himself in the centre of the section.
‘What’s your squawk?’ the corporal asked, touching his earpiece with an index finger. Joshua looked blank. ‘Your frequency, man. We haven’t got all night.’
‘We… we don’t have radios,’ stammered Joshua.
‘No radios,’ said Svejk bitterly. ‘I should have guessed. How in the hells do you communicate, semaphore?’
‘We use field-calls,’ Joshua mumbled. ‘And whistles, like we do with the dogs…’ he trailed off under Svejk’s withering gaze. They walked on in silence, descending the switchback path, until the moonslight on the fields beyond grew visible through the trees.
‘Tell them to stop,’ hissed Svejk, ‘and if you can, to spread out along the treeline.’
Joshua wet his lips nervously, and gave a low whistle, followed by two high-pitched notes. Without looking back, Nathan turned off the path, and knelt silently among the bushes that marked the edge of the wood. The others took position at intervals to his right, staring out across the fields at the bottom of the valley and the steep slope beyond.
Svejk stopped a few paces behind the line of men. He unhooked a set of field-glasses from his belt and scanned the rocky outcrops at the top of the slope. Then he nudged Joshua.
‘See the lone tree on the skyline?’ Joshua nodded. ‘Two knuckles to the right, a flat outcrop? That’s where we’re heading. Line abreast. I don’t expect contact, but be ready nonetheless. Tell Bigmouth, start ‘em moving, then hurry back and join me at the other end of the line.’
Joshua nodded again and scurried over to where Nathan was kneeling. He relayed Svejk’s orders in a whisper, pointing out the outcrop on the top of the ridge opposite. Then he gave two short whistles once more, followed by a rising note. The farmhands rose to their feet and began to move silently across the grass, rifles loose in their hands.
Joshua jogged back to where Svejk had taken position on the far right of the section. The corporal waved him into a gap in the ragged line. The moonslight turned the tufted grass into a carpet of greys and blacks, but at least it was easy to see. He glanced up at the rocks above them and immediately stumbled over a tussock. Svejk’s contemptuous snort carried clearly in the still air.
The climb to the outcrop was steep, and in places the men had to scramble on all fours, rifles slung on their backs. Svejk seemed to have no such difficulty. When the section at last reached the top and flopped down, panting, he was breathing as steadily as he had been at the bottom of the valley. He rounded furiously on Joshua.
‘Come on,’ he hissed. ‘Do you really need telling? Positions. All round defence. Now!’
Joshua scrambled to his feet, urging his men into a defensive perimeter around the edge of the plateau. Most of the section grasped what was required of them, but David seemed bewildered. Joshua dragged him into position and returned to the centre of the plateau.
Svejk ignored him. His pack was open on the ground beside him, and he was fiddling with a dinner-plate sized device that he’d laid out on the rock. A red light began to blink, and he sat back with a grunt of satisfaction. Joshua resisted the urge to ask questions.
‘Perimeter established, corporal,’ he reported.
‘Eventually,’ said Svejk. ‘Very well. Pick four to take first watch. Shoot at anything that moves. Let the others come back into the centre and get some rest. If one of the sentries starts shooting, jump to it. Otherwise relieve them after an hour. Understood?’
‘Yes corporal.’ Svejk grunted and lay back on the bare rock, head cushioned on his pack. He refastened his respirator, hiding his face from view, and his breathing slowed. Joshua watched him for a moment, wondering, then approached the nearest sentry. It was Nathan.
‘Aright, Josh?’ The older man did not look around, squinting down the sights of his rifle into the moonslit shadows. ‘Has our lord and master unbent so far as to tell us what in the hells is going on?’
‘Not exactly,’ Joshua admitted. ‘As far as I can tell, he’s taking a nap. The good news is that you can have one of your own. We’ll go watch-and-watch for the rest of the night. Orders are to shoot at anything that moves.’
‘Svejk fancies lamb chops for breakfast then. From my bloody lambs.’
Joshua suppressed a smile. ‘Go on, get your head down. It’ll be a long night. I’ll tell the others.’
Joshua made a careful circuit of the plateau, passing on Svejk’s orders. Those left on watch tried to make themselves comfortable among the rocks, shifting uneasily on the stony ground. By the time Joshua had finished, Nathan had lit a small spirit stove, the flame well-hidden down among the rocks. The contents of a tin mug were already starting to steam.
‘Brew up,’ he said as Joshua approached. ‘Fancy one?’
‘Wouldn’t say no,’ Joshua replied. ‘You need some more water?’ He reached for the canteen on his belt.
Nathan chuckled. ‘You forget, lad. This is my side of the valley. There’s a spring just below the top of the plateau.’
‘Pour it out.’ The voice came from behind Joshua. He spun round. Svejk was standing there, the lenses of his mask glinting in the moonslight. Nathan looked up at him wearily.
‘It’s clean water, and well boiled. The flame is hidden. Would you really grudge us a brew, corporal?’
‘I gave you an order, Bigmouth.’ Svejk spoke quietly. ‘Drink that, and you’re a dead man.’
Nathan sighed. ‘You said it yourself. We’re farmers, not soldiers. I’m sure you know your way around a firefight, and if it comes to that, I’ll follow your orders to the letter. But with respect, corporal, I won’t stand here and take lessons from a youngster like yourself when it comes to fieldcraft. Not when I’m sitting in my own damn fields.’
Svejk, his face inscrutable beneath the mask, turned away without another word. Nathan shrugged and dropped a teabag into the mug. He fumbled in his belt kit for a sachet of milk powder, stirred it in, and proffered the mug to Joshua.
‘Best not,’ Joshua replied, embarrassed. ‘He seemed pretty serious.’
Nathan made a face. ‘I’ve met his kind before. Desperate to exert authority. If you stand up to them, politely like, they’ll bugger off and find someone else to bully.’ He took a sip of his tea. ‘He’ll pretend it never happened come the morning, you’ll see.’
‘I’m sure you’re right,’ said Joshua, rising. ‘I’m going to get my head down while I can.’
He brushed aside as many of the loose stones as he could and lay back, his head resting awkwardly on the lip of his helmet. He didn’t think he’d slept, but it only felt like moments later when someone shook him. It was David.
‘Up you get,’ he whispered. ‘Your watch.’
‘Where were you on?’ asked Joshua blearily. David pointed.
Joshua settled himself amongst the rocks. His eyes were well adjusted to the dark by now, and the light of the moons, old and new, was enough to outline the rocks and tufts of grass in shadowy relief. He tried to memorise the pattern, such that he might recognise any new shape in the darkness, even if he missed it move.
He wriggled his left hand out from under the stock of his rifle and glanced at his watch. Only forty minutes gone of his hour. He shifted again, trying in vain to get comfortable.
A hand landed on his shoulder. It was Nathan.
‘Josh,’ the older man hissed. ‘I’m not feeling so good. Touch of the runs, nothing serious. Don’t want his nibs to know – he’ll never let me live it down. Can you cover my arc while I nip down and sort myself out?’
‘Alright,’ Josh replied. ‘But be quick as you can. It’s a lot to cover.’ He watched Nathan disappear among the rocks below, marking the spot where he’d vanished. Then he shifted round as far as he dared, trying to cover two sides of the square in the darkness.
Nathan had not reappeared by the time Joshua’s watch was meant to end. He gave him another fifteen minutes, hoping his friend would emerge from the shadows. He did not. At last, Joshua got to his feet and returned to the knot of dozing figures in the centre of the plateau. He shook two of them awake and sent them off to the posts vacated by him and Nathan. Then he touched Svejk hesitantly on the shoulder.
The corporal instantly lifted his head from his pack. Whether he had indeed been asleep or not, Joshua could not tell.
‘It’s Nathan,’ Joshua began. ‘Nathan Fry. The one you call Bigmouth. He went to relieve himself and hasn’t come back.’
Svejk rose to his feet, scooping up his weapon as he did. ‘Where?’ he asked.
Joshua led him past the sentries and down to the cluster of rocks behind which Nathan had disappeared. They found him lying in a crumpled heap at their base. Nathan’s trousers were round his ankles, and he was clutching his stomach. He had collapsed backwards in a pool of what looked like blood and smelled like filth.
‘Help me get him back.’ Svejk’s voice was grim. The two of them grabbed Nathan under the armpits. He feebly tried to push them away, before groaning and grabbing his belly once more. They dragged him back inside the ring of sentries.
David’s eyes widened when he saw the three of them. ‘Throne save us,’ he muttered as Nathan sprawled across the rocks. Joshua reached out and tugged his friend’s trailing battledress down, trying to give him what dignity he could.
Svejk drew a wedge-shaped pistol from a holster on his belt. The lens inside the barrel caught the moonslight as he pointed it at Nathan.
‘Yeoman Jones,’ he said, raising his voice just enough for the sentries to hear. ‘You are charged with wilfully disobeying a lawful order. How do you plead?’
Nathan did not reply. He opened his eyes just long enough to see the weapon pointed at him. Convulsions shook him once more, and he began clawing at his midriff.
‘How do you plead?’ repeated Svejk.
Nathan nodded once.
‘Will you witness that?’ the corporal asked, looking at Joshua.
Joshua’s mouth was dry. ‘Yes,’ he managed.
Svejk pulled the trigger. There was a snapping sound. For an instant a spot of light, impossibly bright in the darkness, appeared on Nathan’s forehead. Then it was gone, leaving bright afterimages dancing across Joshua’s vision. Nathan slumped back and lay still, a neat hole burned in his brow. An acrid smell mingled with the scent of roasting meat. Joshua turned aside and vomited.
David seemed unable to tear his eyes away from the body. ‘What happened to him?’ he asked.
Svejk kicked moodily at the tin mug still perched on the dead spirit stove. It scattered dregs of tea across the rocks and clattered into the darkness. ‘Water’s infested,’ he said shortly. ‘If you drink it, the little bastards eat you alive. If you boil it first, they die, but take you with them. Little things like that are why you learn to follow orders.’
‘Then how do we drink?’ David seemed on the verge of panic.
‘You were issued sealed canteens?’ asked Svejk. ‘Then you’ve got enough for now. After that, you’ll have to filter it.’
Joshua found his voice. ‘What with? We’ve got no purification kits.’
Svejk looked at him sideways. ‘You’ve got respirators at least? Then there’s a trick you can do with the spare canisters. I’ll show you, if we get as far as needing it.’ He turned to David. ‘Aren’t you due on watch?’
‘Nobody’s called me.’ The phrase came out as a squeak. ‘It’s the sentry’s job to wake the next man, isn’t it?’
‘Then I should go and volunteer, if I were you,’ said Svejk. David vanished.
Joshua slumped against a rock, his back to the horror he had witnessed. Svejk too lay down. To Joshua’s astonishment he fell asleep, or at least appeared to, almost at once. Joshua tried to remember when he had last drunk from the pump by the farmhouse door. Was that water infested? How long did the parasite take to show itself?
The crack of a rifle jerked him from his worry. He leapt to his feet, even as a second shot split the night. This time he saw the muzzle flash. David. He ran towards the boy, fumbling his own rifle round on its sling. Svejk was ahead of him, his own weapon at his shoulder, a torch slung under the barrel probing the darkness. David fired again. Chips of stone exploded off a boulder about thirty yards downhill.
‘Why in the name of the Holy Emperor’s balls are you shooting at rocks?’ exploded Svejk.
David’s eyes shone. ‘Suppressing fire, corporal. Something dived behind that boulder. I saw a tail.’
Svejk stared at him for a moment. ‘I doubt that,’ he said. ‘You can’t suppress something that doesn’t fear death.’
‘What doesn’t, corporal?’ Joshua burst out. ‘It would help if we knew what in the hells we were up against.’
‘Are you blind?’ Svejk seemed genuinely taken aback. ‘Have you not looked at the sky at any point in the last six weeks?’
Joshua looked up at the pale disc. ‘It’s just a light in the heavens,’ he said. ‘Nobody has told us what it means. The radio has had nothing but music for a month.’
‘But you haven’t…’ Svejk began, then shook his head. ‘Of course you haven’t. Because you’re damn rustics.’ He unhooked his field glasses and offered them to Joshua.
Joshua held the glasses up to his eyes, squinting until he found the right distance: the glasses were calibrated for Svejk’s visor. The disc swam in front of him, a white blur, until, with a whine, the binoculars focused themselves.
‘God-Emperor preserve us,’ Joshua stammered. ‘It’s alive.’
‘The Great Devourer,’ explained Svejk. ‘Not a big incursion, by all accounts, but too big for us. We’d managed to hold them back at their landing areas, but the cost was high.’ He looked away for a moment, out into the darkness. ‘Far too high. Apparently, reinforcements are on their way. If we can offer them enough safe landing spots,’ he indicated the red light still blinking behind them, ‘they might condescend to save what’s left of us.’
‘Xenos,’ breathed Joshua. ‘Real-life xenos. I never believed we’d see them in this system, let alone on the planet itself.’
‘If it’s any comfort,’ said Svejk with heavy irony, ‘until six weeks ago, neither did the Astra Militarium. Well, you can believe it now.’ He turned and addressed the rest of the section. ‘OK, no more rest. We’re all on watch for the rest of the night. They know we’re here.’
Joshua stayed where he was. ‘What about the village?’ he asked.
‘What about it?’ replied Svejk. Seeing Joshua’s face, he softened slightly. ‘Unless we hold this landing pad, and others do the same elsewhere, then your village and millions like it are bug fodder. You doing your job is the only chance they’ve got.’
Without a word, Joshua picked up his rifle and slotted into one of the gaps between the sentries. He settled down to wait, from time to time glancing up at the pale disc hanging in the sky. Staring at the light made it harder to see into the shadows, but now he knew the nature of the disc, it was difficult to tear his eyes away.
A flicker of movement caught his eye.
He looked closer, but the heart of his vision seemed less keen than the periphery. Nothing stirred, until, all at once, the beast was almost on top of him, too quickly for fear to take hold. His finger slipped from the safety catch to trigger and the weapon spat flame. The monster stumbled among the rocks, crashed to earth and lay still.
‘C…Contact!’ he managed to cry. Chaos erupted all around. Men were shouting, rifles cracking and misses ricocheting from rocks. Their attackers came on in a silent rush of claws and teeth and slavering jaws. Joshua was firing wildly now, his muzzle climbing, rounds going wide. He sighted on another beast loping uphill towards him and pulled the trigger. Pieces of chitin spiralled away into the darkness, but the creature kept coming. His next shot missed, and the one after that. He tried to force his breathing under control, aimed low, and pulled the trigger again. Nothing happened. He hammered at the cocking lever, frantically pulling the trigger. The rifle did not even click.
‘Stoppage! Stoppage!’ he screamed. The beast came on. Joshua tried to get to his feet, to swing his rifle butt or to run away he was never quite sure. A snapping crackle, like a dozen branches breaking underfoot, burst from behind him and a cluster of hotspots appeared on the beast’s carapace. They glowed for a moment in the darkness. The monster crumpled, tail thrashing.
A scream echoed from the other side of the plateau. Joshua spun round, but Svejk was already firing, emptying his lasgun into a beast that was tearing at something on the ground. It fell.
Once again all was silent.
Svejk and Joshua crossed the hilltop and examined the ragged bundle wedged between the rocks. It was David, his belly ripped open, entrails hanging from the wound, sightless eyes staring at the night sky.
Svejk looked sideways at the useless rifle in Joshua’s arms. ‘Your mag’s empty,’ he said.
Joshua looked at the rifle, then at the empty spot to David’s right, the arc Svejk had been covering, before he came to Joshua’s rescue.
‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered.
‘You can tell that to his mother,’ said Svejk, ‘If you’re lucky. Now load up and get back to your position. They were barely trying that time.’
Joshua slid the empty magazine from the rifle and replaced it with his spare. The click as the bolt shot home sounded like the slamming of a coffin. Svejk held his hand out.
‘I’ll take the empty,’ he said. ‘Get back to your post.’
Joshua slunk back to his gap in the perimeter and looked out into the darkness. Nothing moved. Shortly afterwards, Svejk tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a half-full magazine. Joshua didn’t need to ask where the spare rounds had come from. He rolled onto one side, to give his cold hands easier access to his ammunition pouch.
As if it had appeared from nowhere, an enormous ship hung in the sky. It looked very much like the ones on the tattered poster in Saul’s bedroom. Big enough to be seen clearly from the surface, it dwarfed the pale disc of the alien vessel. Joshua shouted aloud, an incoherent cry of relief and hope. The other men joined in, and even Svejk punched the air as the cruiser opened up on the enemy with its main gun.
The pale disc shattered. For several minutes, streaks of fire flashed across the sky as debris burned up in the atmosphere.
‘Stay sharp,’ barked Svejk. ‘We’re still a long way from safety. The bugs are still out there, and the Astartes always need convincing to leave their warm berths.’
Reluctantly, the yeomen turned back to watching their arcs. They weren’t kept waiting long. A ripple of sparks along the cruiser’s side presaged dozens more curving streaks of fire across the heavens. Unlike the random debris from the enemy ship, these fell with purpose, in a regular pattern.
Joshua realised Svejk was laughing. He turned to him, puzzled.
‘What’s so funny, corporal?’
Svejk pulled off his mask, and stared Joshua straight in the eyes for the first time. In the moonslight, his face was as pale as milk.
‘Those aren’t drop-pods,’ he croaked. ‘They’re…’
The world went white.
Excerpt from the log of the Fidelis-Class Strike Cruiser Unyielding
Imperial Date: 0 106 020.M41
Casualties: Acceptable to Moderate
Planetary Asset Status: Unrecoverable
About the Author
Daniel Summerbell is a player of Age of Sigmar, and author of Erynost and Other Stories, an accompanying novel to the Realms At War narrative event. This story is his first foray into the 40K universe in over a decade, but he’s always had a soft-spot for the PBI, or whatever they call the Guard these days.